Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Encore: All Saints - all wrong!

Much as I would have loved to attend a glorious festal Eucharist today, I seem to be coming down with a cold, so I settled for a 'said' midday service. As luck would have it, the celebrant was the same priest I mentioned in last week's post about how eschatology and ecclesiology were sadly absent from his All Souls' Day sermon in 2010. (I must add, on the rare chance that he or anyone he knows is reading this, that I've yet to hear a sermon of his with which I agreed, but regard him highly otherwise.) Once again, I wasn't surprised at his misconceptions about this wonderful feast, and know they date back centuries in popular devotion, but the overall effect was dismal.

The content of his sermon boiled down to: (1) we remember all the saints today (so far, so good), (2) people always thought they needed the saints' intercession, (3) this is wrong because we have Jesus and He is the mediator. It's rather pathetic that someone who spent years training for the priesthood has no concept of intercessory prayer, apparently thinks prayer is limited to intercession, or thinks that embracing the communion of saints (I'll re-state from last time - ecclesiology places us 'all in this together') means thinking there are mediators other than Jesus. That there are those who ask the intercession of the saints (it's in the litany in the Book of Common Prayer, I've noticed) does not mean we cannot approach God and have to go through a middleman (an example used in this sermon.)

My 'regulars,' assuming there are any, are aware that, though my spirituality tends more towards the patristic, I've studied the Middle Ages at some length. Though treating the saints as sources of special favours is hardly confined to that period, it was the hey-day. Such books as "The Golden Legend" have phenomenal, fantastic tales of saints working miracles during their life-times - even to the point of raising the dead, or making a ploughman's hand stick to the plough when he doubted a point of doctrine. (I have often wondered if, a few centuries later, the faithful having seen that Cromwell's toppling the tabernacle did not lead to being turned to stone have an influence on that, though miracles through a saint's intercession are still considered in canonisation procedures, rarely are saints of the modern period referred to as having been channels for miracles in life.) Yet, even in the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas cautioned against undue emphasis on miracles (not only in relation to intercession, but overall), because this can make it appear that God is not always present and active in creation. In our own day, it is far more likely to be fundamentalists (who certainly would not invoke saints other than themselves) than Catholics who base evangelisation on miracles.

There is not, and, to my knowledge, never has been doctrine that even implied that prayers of petition had to be offered 'through intermediaries.' Indeed, I've heard versions of that idea - but they are approaches individuals found useful, not religious teachings. I've met people who saw humility in 'to Jesus through Mary,' and, though I disagree with any idea that one mustn't approach the King of Kings on one's own, I can understand where this can be a valuable idea for some. Certainly, in a feudal society, such as that of the Middle Ages, the idea of intermediaries has many implications.

I see all of the Church (those on earth or in the next life) as united in praise. I'm not minimising the love in intercession - and don't see why some find it offensive to think that, where "I" can pray for "you" in need, prayers from those in the next phase of existence imply idolatry. Yet the idea of prayer as purely intercession is quite off the mark. My own life centres on orthopraxy, and is almost entirely liturgical - uniting, with the entire Church (including the communion of saints), in praise and thanksgiving. Intercessions ask blessings on others - and our petitions can make us more aware of the Creator as the source of all, and make what that for which we are grateful more recognisable as a gift.

I've mentioned the value I see in folk religion, much as I do not have the sort of trust and simplicity that I admire in those capable of such lovely prayers. My mother (as is true of many people) hardly felt she could not 'approach God directly'! (Indeed, her shouting for Him to come down so she could knock his head off, which she put in the strongest terms when my father died, had no element of fear!) In her simplicity, she spoke to different saints as one might to varied friends or relatives. Think about this - don't we all have different friends, all of whom we love, where we might share one concern with a particular friend, but not with another? She spoke to the saints exactly as one might to a brother or sister - and I see that as an awareness of the divine, not as an avoidance of God.

Worship has continued for thousands of years. Those who have gone before, especially those we remember in particular for virtue, always were valued as witnesses - to the faith, to how divine grace can compensate for our weakness. Let us join, once again, in a Maranatha - from all seven billion of us on earth, and all who went before. Creation is endless.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

All Saints, All Souls - All Creation - Maranatha!

"Scholars have long drawn attention to the contrast between the early Christian invocation maranatha and the mediaeval Dies Irae. In the former, there is a joyful hope for the Christ who will come soon, a hope which takes on particular intensity in the early second century Didache with its cry: 'May grace come, and this world pass away.' In the Dies Irae...we hear only for the fear of judgement, which contemplates the End under the appearances of horror and of threat to the soul's salvation. Or again, there is that characteristic motto of mass mission in the 19th and 20th centuries: 'save your soul.' Like a lightning-flash, this motto (shows) how Christianity has been reduced to the level of individual persons, to the detriment of what was once the core of both eschatology and the Christian message itself: the confident, corporate hope for the imminent salvation of the world." - Josef Ratzinger, Eschatology

Just a year ago, I attended a Eucharist for All Souls' Day where a young priest preached about how he was sorry the entire 'All Saints - All Souls' feast sequence had not disappeared with the Reformation. To his way of thinking, which I found to be far off the mark but quite understandable, the feasts imply we aren't all saved, and that "there are saints and super-saints."

Were his memory as long as mine, much less if he'd devoted as much time as I have to studying the mediaeval period, I suppose, with selective theology, that he could have had that impression all the more. One of these days, I just may post a page about the entire history of the concepts of purgatory and indulgences - and how both grew like Topsy (though more in practise than in doctrine.) By the time of the Middle Ages, and largely through the influence of a well-meaning Franciscan pope who extended 'indulgences' to the dead, a huge judicial system, binding on those in the next life, had developed. It was also a hey-day for literature and sermons (probably intended as a treatment of the seven capital sins) about such circles of purgatory and hell as would be glorified in Dante and enjoyed by the lawyer Thomas More some centuries later. Since those in purgatory (the Church Suffering, as opposed to the Church Militant on earth and Church Triumphant in heaven) could not 'merit' for themselves, they were dependent on the prayers and sacrifices of the living... and monasteries were becoming wealthy, and conducting ordinations en masse, through offering Masses for the deceased. It must have been a substantial burden, for those whose families perished in the Plague for example, to multiply alms and sacrifices.

In my own youth, the action of 'offering things up for the poor souls in purgatory' (the super-saints of the Church Militant even made a vow to give all their indulgences to Mary to distribute, and couldn't pray for any intention on their own initiative, which I suppose could have been quite charitable, was still out of hand. One received the impression that one could not pray for anyone who was still living. As long as I'm including quotations today, here is one a little less sublime than that from the Pope. A young nun I knew, Clare, had two small, framed photographs on her shelf, and told me the man in one was her father, who had died a short time ago. I asked if the lady in the other picture was her mother, to which she replied, "Oh, no - my mother is alive."

What I found troubling, both in the sermon I mentioned and the other elements, was the absence of an eschatological focus, as well as a true sense of ecclesiology. I love the two feasts (...and both religious and folk elements of Halloween - don't think I'll miss a party!), and am very glad the days are sequential. Our human nature was deified in the Incarnation - but we still await Christ's final glory, in which we shall share. I dislike the Calvinist view that we are basically obliterated till the Last Judgement (which I see as cosmic redemption, not the equivalent of Dante's shots at his political opponents.) I am not about to speculate on the nature of the after-life, since I cannot even define redemption, creation, resurrection, and the like in this one - we have only a glimpse of the divine. Yet we await that parousia - and this is true for those in the next life as well.

I see God as Creator, and creation as dynamic. I see us as growing in all stages of our existence, naturally including those beyond our time on this earth. I do not see any of this as involving 'punishment' (be kind to Augustine... he was caught up in defending omnipotence, and never knew when to stop when he found he no more had the answer to the problem of evil than does anyone else.) I prefer the Cappadoccian image - love growing ever more white-hot; awareness of the divine never being full, but constantly increasing. Any 'fire' would be, I believe, that of the Burning Bush and other scriptural images - God is the fire, and it is that of revelation and covenant. (Recall that Moses did not burn.)

Forgive the cliché, but on another level, 'we're all in this together.' Every one of us is in the 'all saints' and 'all souls' category. We need for maranatha to predominate, but the Dies Irae has its purposes. Liturgy (and, on another plane, even folk customs, superstition, legends) does well to recall that we do fear the unknown, truly do mourn for those who have passed to the next life. The 'work of the people' needs to admit to our natural fear and grief.

These feasts are a treasure - when the emphasis is eschatology - and that is joyful hope rather than a fear of condemnation.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

That wasn't a joke?

My tendency to the wry and ironic has two 'side effects' for those who are not ones for either. Some of my best jokes lead to others thinking I'm distressed (though, believe me, were I truly distressed, I'd either disappear or, were I caught, leave one with no doubt! Then again, lots of people so love sad stories that they manufacture them nearly as often as I lapse into jester mode. Last week, I was saying an Office in a church, and someone, unknown to me, thought I was ill because I had my head down slightly - to read the psalms - and was moving my mouth a bit, because, though I never read aloud to myself otherwise, I learnt years ago to say prayers aloud even if in a tiny whisper - probably back when one had to say lots of prayers aloud to gain the indulgences. Head bowed - ahem! - someone assumed to be talking to herself out loud - which I only do at home - yes, that's good ammunition for the psycho-babble brigade.) I often forget, as well, that religious humour, which usually appeals in particular to those with huge faith, can be taken as irreverent (which it normally is, and by design) and offensive (never!) by those who are delicate or who came to the faith in full-blown 'late have I loved thee' mode.

How well I remember, after 30 years, when I was scrubbing a parish kitchen floor (..."Francis, go and repair my church" ... believe me, everyone takes us up on that one...), and my friend Jane, for my edification and entertainment, was telling me of a 'shocking' incident she'd observed when she and Sadie attended some sort of healing service (conducted by Franciscans, so things mustn't have been all that spit and polish.) Jane was relatively young, but always had an air of someone who'd seen 100 years of suffering which she'd enjoyed immensely. Sadie was as holy as they get, and a bit fey - she saw an image of the Sacred Heart appear on the screen when she watched one Brook Shields film, and asked if it was a religious picture. Sadie was of a shy nature, and was immensely devoted to her husband, who leaned towards being insensitive and was excessively fond of his glass. Sadie and Jane actually had a number of characteristics in common, but one huge difference was that Sadie was inclined to kiss nearly everyone in greeting, where I doubt Jane's kids had ever even seen their mother kiss their father.

"Ah, Elizabeth, I couldn't believe what I was seeing! Sadie kissed this priest! (Scornful look) This little, short priest. Right on the lips! Now, who would even think of kissing a priest, but Sadie went and kissed him - little short man he was, didn't look like much, but she went and kissed him! (Pause) She mustn't be too happy at home."

Jane couldn't be understanding why that last line sent me into gales of laughter. (Well, had I said it, I would have most definitely intended to be funny!) "Ah, Elizabeth, you laugh at nothing! Sadie really kissed a priest! Right on the lips!"

The mental picture of the timid, extremely pious Sadie in the role of wicked woman was so hilarious that I wish I'd been there...

Of course, there are other times when I (often with others) have unintentionally troubled someone because we mistook a flub for a joke. I'm thinking of when I assisted with a retreat for girls aged thirteen or so, who were school-mates. The retreat was held at a building which was inhabited by a few nuns, who still wore the long habit, old-style veil and coif, and who all happened to be of well below average height. (That will figure later.) Retreats for teens, despite all the 'heavy stuff' and their weeping (partly resulting from adolescent emotionalism, partly hormones with no place to take them, and largely from seeing clichés as fresh insights - believe me, you don't want to be over-exposed to the petitions and offertory processions, the latter of which include bringing up lipsticks and school books...), need to have some fun time. The kids decided, during the 'drink soda and giggle' period, that they'd like to put on a little show, and asked permission to wear some of the nuns' summer habits, which they'd seen hanging in an adjacent store room.

The girls adjoined to their 'dressing room,' and dressed in the nuns' habits - without removing their own blue jeans, running shoes, and athletic socks. Since the nuns were so tiny, the normally floor-length habits reached to slightly below the girls' knees (with ample portions of jeans, socks, and running shoes visible...), the coifs looked like white Grim Reaper masks, headbands and veils were as off-balance as the worst of adolescent emotions, and the effect when they appeared 'on stage' was enough to give us misguided souls in the audience the mistaken impression that they'd worked out a comedy sketch.

The girls began singing "The Sound of Music," horribly off-key, and one of them did (what we thought was) a 'take' on the descant which Liesl sings in the play so terribly that we naturally thought this combination of sights and sounds was the opening to something to top Monty Python. Yes, we roared. I defy nearly anyone to think this was not intended to be funny... but, if I thought we had to contend with weeping at the Eucharist, the amount that resulted from their reaction to our laughter would have been a challenge to Noah.

Then there is my cherished friend Madeline, who has been enormously considerate and generous to me. I'd be first to institute her canonisation proceedings for many reasons, but (and this is the best illustration of my dad's "you've got the book learning, but not the ways of the world" theory on record) I still forget that Madeline not only never catches jokes but never intentionally said anything funny in her life. Madeline and I have known each other for decades, and I know well that, whenever she sees anyone, her greeting invariably is, "You know who died?" (Actually, that is inaccurate - on the rare day when she can't find even a remotely familiar name in the obituaries, there may be such variations as a report of who has a terminal illness or was victim of a disaster. At least 75% of the time, I've never even heard of the deceased.)

Madeline, who sadly moved from her life-long neighbourhood a few years ago, was telling me that one old friend, who'd remained till recently, now had moved as well. "It's a shame I don't hear from Billy (note to readers - about the old neighbourhood) now. He'd tell me who's dead, who isn't..."

Would you believe that I actually thought Madeline was laughing at herself? ... I was mistaken... I hope I didn't wound the pride of one who's been so good to me. Then again, when I (looking for some topic to discuss with Madeline) casually mentioned I'd had a good time doing Cleopatra with my Shakespeare group, when she added, "You know, she died," for a moment I thought it was a joke. (After all, few scenes in Shakespeare are as well-known as that with Cleopatra and the asp...) I finally caught on that Madeline was referring to Elizabeth Taylor.

I was surprised when a theologian whom I know and respect, when he was present as noted here - as a snobbish soul expressed her disgusted fear that she'd be in the company of Neanderthal man at the resurrection and, unlike yours truly, didn't have to choke behind a handkerchief...)

So, on cliché buster patrol - it isn't always correct to assume 'laugh and the world laughs with you.' I still will caution anyone (above the age of fourteen) - especially those who have an interest in church involvement and/or the Internet - if you must cry, be sure to do it alone! Crying in the company of church people is always a mistake. Cry on the Internet (or even be mistaken for crying when you are laughing...), and you'll hear from 5,000 amateur shrinks... and no one, not even myself, has enough energy to laugh at that many people in a day.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Yes, I exaggerated a bit

My last post was a mixture of genuine viewpoints and exaggeration, as I hope was obvious. Yet I was seeking to make a few points I do find critical. Genuine injustice is tragic and even an outrage. There are certainly plentiful examples of the genuine article without clouding the issues, or spurring others to a rage that blinds one to the truth rather than expressing it, without exaggerating what is offensive.

I haven't been drinking perfume (I'm not even financially able to have an occasional gin at the moment). :) I know the moralists who would speak of 'elitist' attitudes towards 'non-human animals' were focussed on ecology, and not equating my cat's use of reason and will with our own. Yet I wanted to underline concerns I have in that area. I am very 'green,' very concerned for stewardship of the earth - yet I refuse to 'take a guilt trip' for eating animal products. If a drug or operation which can save human lives needed to be tested on a dog, this will not be anything I'd oppose.

Many flaws in Western theology of which I've previously written have a connection to disliking the physical, so I'm not going to repeat myself. I think we all have moments when we can come close to feeling as if we are 'pure mammal'! With the continuing, ever-increasing strain of recession, I occasionally find myself feeling like a hungry cat with my survival threatened - ready to get out my claws at any danger. Nonetheless, with my being very centred on the Incarnation, creation, our deification and the like, I believe that an excessive pre-occupation with the 'non human animals' can blind us to the awe and gratitude we should have for our own unique dignity amongst creatures. Nor can we excuse ourselves from our wrongs because of our animal nature. I may feel like a threatened cat at times - but the normal life for that species would be a sad situation for a human!

I've often said that one problem (in all fields, but here I specifically am referring to theology) which can be highly confusing is that terms which have a specific meaning in the theological context differ greatly from the vernacular usage. In common usage, if one refers to 'envy,' it can seem positive - perhaps 'you' accomplished a goal to which I aspire as well. It has a striking difference from 'envy' in moral theology - where the same term would mean 'you have what I want, and I hate you for it.' Anger, in the vernacular, can have varied shades of meaning, and certainly being upset, outraged, and so forth may be understandable, justifiable, or, at times, a spur to positive action. This, too, is quite a difference from 'an inordinate desire for revenge.'Being truly vengeful can spur blindness to the truth, contempt, hatred, and violence.

I'm sorry to say that I am no stranger to sexism - not only in the abstract but in the many forms in which I was its target. I doubt too many people would ask a man with advanced degrees questions such as, "You don't type?! Then what could you do - be a waitress?" Male department heads probably are not excluded in ways that I experienced, and vendors or representatives who meet with them may not be thinking 'how do I get past this glorified clerk to the man who really makes the decisions?' I've actually had vendors phone me, to say a letter I signed should be replaced by one from a male, because, otherwise, those in authority would think 'this was just sent by some secretary.' My own family members, who knew I could go through diplomae like a deck of cards and had been in management for years, tended to assume I had an entry-level clerical job!

Seeking to remedy such viewpoints (and I doubt I'll live to see this - many of the vendors who were first to assume they needed to 'get past me' surprisingly were younger than I am) can be thwarted by excess. Assuming women cannot be 'real' managers is insulting - saying that Meryl Streep is a great actress is a compliment.

There are other, far more insidious, traps into which one may fall (and I'm not exempting myself, since I am sorry to recall excesses to which I was very prone at one time.) I'll borrow my previous example, related to liturgy, as a simple illustration. Modifying the text of the creed may be helpful in clarifying meaning. (In my university days, hardly ancient history, 'his' was a correct form when the person to whom one referred could be of either sex - and 'man' meant 'humanity' in certain contexts. Perhaps the very young would not be aware of this.) However, were I seeking to spur others to outrage, hoping it would promote a feminist goal, and said that, when I heard "for us men and for our salvation...," it meant that salvation was extended only to males, this isn't true - never was true - and I know this.

I definitely have never seen women as inferior, and always was troubled by their being treated as such. (I could speak of many other areas that trouble me, but I am speaking of this one in particular merely for the sake of simplicity, since I don't want to write two reams.) Yet I remember, all too well, when articulate and very charismatic women - who were too intelligent and educated to not be either selective or distorted in references they used to spur action - seemed more to be seeking to inflame other women than to dealing with (painful) truth. Much that came of this was tragic. Women who'd been outstanding in service could be convinced that they'd been in a shameful position - the big, bad males treated you as a slave. People who'd worked side by side, and well, could be led to contempt for one another because the associate suddenly is a male who had to be part of the oppression. There were other cases where women could not admit to problems other women in authority may have caused for them - everything had to be blamed on the males, and how can one resolve internal conflicts if the source cannot be admitted?

We also need to be cautious that, when we are conscious of, and troubled about, such matters as the sexism I've experienced all too frequently (and this compounded by the assumption that anyone in the charity sector is incompetent), we don't become 'victims' in our own minds. This can lead us to seeing offence when it does not exist, or, perhaps more dangerously, blinding us to our own weaknesses - we are the victim, we are blameless. Rage and envy (in the theological sense I previously referenced) can give us tunnel vision and distortion. We can begin not merely to disagree with another's viewpoint, but to assume it is rationalising misogyny, when that may not be the case. We can justify wrong-doing on our own part, if we become so focussed on our own oppression that we (unwittingly) assume we can do no wrong, or justify our rage based on (possibly very inaccurate) ideas about underlying motives on the part of the other.

My prayer today is for truth and love - as only God can give!

Monday, 11 April 2011

Insulting people's intelligence

It constantly amazes me that books I have studied in recent years, articles by noted authors, sermons by the learned, and so forth often are so aimed at not offending anyone, or at proving how 'inclusive' we all are, have an air of condescension which the least tutored mind could sense, even if those at universities do not. Perhaps the best example for this week is from a text intended for university students pursuing Christian ethics. It cautioned against 'elitism,' in exploring moral theology in a fashion which assumes humans are superior to non-human animals. (I can assure you this is not a satire.)

I still mourn my beloved cat, Mirielle, who was the most affectionate example of her species I have known in a life-time as a cat-lover. Nonetheless, I would hardly have considered her to be capable of practising the virtue of charity, nor did I see her breaking my teapot as an injustice to be remedied by a lecture on respecting the property of others. (This whilst conceding that she was fully aware that she owned me, and was by no means 'property.') The Franciscan in me sees that Mirielle was glorifying her Creator by fully being what she was - a cat! To consider her to be capable of sin or virtue would be absurd - her hearing my theology and philosophy lectures was purely the result of my having no human about who was interested. Should one deny the dignity of one's human nature lest one possibly offend a feline (or other 'non human animal')? Mirielle possibly had dreams of smoked salmon just as often as would I - and indeed would help herself without offering me some first were my back turned, which seems an incredible breach of good manners, yet she would not have been offended at not being thought a human. (Being a highly intelligent cat who observed the foibles of humanity daily, I doubt Mirielle would have considered this a promotion. She'd seen the frustrated theologian preach too many times to want to copy the potential for envy.) Or should those learned in the field treat of points of moral theology treating us as if we were no different from cats?

Another gem came from a book about Julian of Norwich. Julian presents a warm, tender image of God as a mother, who comforts the clumsy little child (that's all of us - and for always) when he stumbles (...as we do, daily.) The author saw Julian as presenting a model for mothers which women might be troubled by being unable to attain. (This matches a complaint in a book about the Virgin Mary's being seen, in many art works, as kneeling before her baby Son, therefore illustrating the inferiority of women.) Allow me to indulge my regret that I never attained my goal of being a university professor, and a brief almost-sin of envy that these authors generally have done so. Both the mother to which Julian refers, and the Son before whom 'subservient' Mary kneels, happen to be God! Julian was not writing a handbook for parenting, nor could the specific circumstances of Mary's motherhood be considered typical. (Next we'll be hearing, from the overly literal, that the image of the stumbling infant violates children's rights or is insulting to the disabled.)

My regulars (assuming I have any) are aware of how I loathe the excessive 'political correctness,' which I do not see as a commitment to social justice or eliminating genuine oppression (both extremely important matters in my book), but as often verging on the ridiculous, and insulting the people one supposedly is assisting. I still cannot see where referring to someone as a 'great actress' is insulting because it implies she is a woman (which she happens to be), or why the libraries' departments of Oriental studies suddenly are seen as using an offensive word. The same author who thought Julian was writing a parenting manual saw her description of seeing demonic figures (the sort of dark, grotesque forms standard in medieval art) as racist - though such creatures not only are figurative, as I'm sure a child of 8 would understand, but are not human beings in any case.

I sometimes make the joke that my family were titled - many worked in the grocery business, and one moved up to the butcher department, where his title was Meat Head. (That title is not my creation - it's real, though there is a little dramatic licence here, because my family actually were not butchers.) Working class kids never saw anything other than honour in their father's professions (unless, as was not the case for most of us, there would be a reason.) I very much dislike the current trend towards changing the name of jobs to meet some nonsensical standard of political correctness. It implies that there was something shameful in a person's honourable work - so much so that the name of that occupation can never be mentioned.

What does this serve? As one glaring example, secretaries now often have ridiculous titles, as if their profession was a disgrace in itself (I suppose because it was held mostly by women), so much so that the word cannot be spoken. For those who think this aids a feminist cause (and as one who has high regard for those in that profession anyway), it actually created more sexism! Speaking as one who spent ages as a manager, those who, on meeting me, immediately wanted to meet the real 'decision maker,' just assumed that, being female, I must be a secretary with a ridiculous title.

I loved a comment I heard when two young men with Down Syndrome were teasing each other: "You're not stupid - you're just retarded!" There is a wisdom in that which many of us with double their IQ scores (...not mentioning anyone in particular, of course...) have yet to attain. All of us have limitations - and recognising these is painful but the only way that we can be who we are, and use such talents as we do possess. I wonder if some of the careful crafting of euphemisms for disabilities stem from not wanting to admit to our own. Thousands of people have to live with not being able to walk - how can they move on (I understand one was President of the United States) without resigning themselves and valuing what they are? I've seen, for example, learned writings which see admitting that someone is blind or deaf is insulting (how a person's worth is eliminated by being unable to see or hear is beyond me), or that this denies their sexuality. (Not being too knowledgeable on that topic, I utterly fail to see the connection. Two blind men I know, one a lawyer/politician, the other a CFO, coincidentally both fathered five children - I'll ask one of them next time they see me.) Then again, I'm weary of the need for offence that caused outrage amongst the deaf when an operation that could allow for some ability in hearing was developed - since this breakthrough meant deaf people need to be fixed...

I suppose the very dedicated, educated, well-intentioned Religious and clergy whom I knew in my younger days were trying so hard to show that they were cool that they didn't realise how nonsensical their reasoning (if indeed it deserves that distinction) became. Middle-class women, whose mothers had never so much as washed a dish, would insult intelligent people, of a lower class or different race, but modifying worship texts into street slang. (I believe everyone, whatever his language, speaks dialect. The insult is in assuming one understands nothing else, or that the poor are stupid.) One RE teacher whom I knew would never use the term 'soul,' and indeed told her pupils "you have no soul! you are a spiritual being!," having been aware of a catechism illustration where souls (and how they are affected by sin) were compared to milk bottles. Granted - there are some theological errors in the presentation - but, having known many people who taught primary, I would recommend recalling that the particular catechism was for children aged 6 or 7. Ask any teacher how visual representations can be helpful to kids that age. The implication that one never matures beyond that point is utterly insulting. (Those whose images of God and such never grow either are of a child-like innocence I'd never spoil or doing it on purpose because self-knowledge would be part of the alternative!)

I'm really weary of the creative editing of the liturgy which I have seen - and I am not referring to the brilliant work of liturgical scholars, even when it led to results they'd not anticipated. The Trinity cannot be mentioned - too sexist. Penitential rites must be excised, lest someone feel guilty or think he is a sinner. (How one can remove the distractions to love of God and neighbour without such awareness is beyond me. "Guilt" can be quite valuable, and those who have none are sociopaths. I may as well think pain is entirely negative, and regret that, when I slipped with the carving knife, I ended up with a small cut rather than being spared any pain and chopping my finger off.) The glorious, "Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open..from whom no secrets are hid," is taboo, lest anyone feel creeped out at the idea that God knows their secrets. (I'm not getting into those who think worship is 'selfish' or keeps one from 'doing,' or who sees 'sacramentalising' as opposed to evangelising. The absurdity of the former would have been recognised many centuries before Christ walked the earth, and the worship of the Christian community has held us together for 2,000 years, despite all the nonsense we've pulled all along.)

I am not denying that there can be individuals who have reasons why certain images trouble them. However, if someone abused by her father associates God as Father with such torture (and, tragic though this is, I doubt it is a default position), wouldn't the scriptures, emphasis on the Creator and Redeemer, words of the liturgy without tossing the Trinity out the door, play a role in leading one to see that God is transcendent - beyond our senses?

Don't think I'm going to spare the extremes of 'inclusive language.' My ghostly brethren, thou knowest that language doth evolve. Yet, from extensive experience, I have noticed that the very women who shriek that "good will towards men" means salvation, unity with God, is limited to males are usually too learned and intelligent to truly think that is the case. Spare me the passages from great theologians, where "his" or "mankind" is followed by (sic.) There indeed may be valid reasons to modify a text - if so, there must be great care that the meaning remains clear rather than becoming all the more obscure. But everyone who attended three years of school (I don't mean university) has read works that weren't produced in the last ten years - and every child of 12 (who is English-speaking) has had at least a passing acquaintance with the beautiful English of the Renaissance. To imply that hearing 'Lord' in reference to Christ, or the term 'man' when it is used in the sense of humanity, would lead to an idea that salvation is the exclusive property of the male is an insult to the intelligence of every woman in the congregation.

I'll close with reference to a 'scholarly' work which insisted that the RC Church had centuries of thinking women had no chance of getting to heaven. Considering the enormous number of devotions to female saints (one in particular who had the unique privilege of being a tabernacle), I'd say 'get me another gin' had I not already wondered if the author already had one too many.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Darkness comes in various flavours

Two unrelated areas in recent weeks prompted me to explore this theme. In a discussion of theological works, it occurred to me that it's easy to forget that many classics either present philosophical arguments or were derived from what originally were letters of direction. As I've treated elsewhere, philosophical arguments (such as Augustine's emphasis on omnipotence), brilliant though they may be, can lead to pastoral disasters. (Headlines on any day of the week will tell us there is indeed much to fear in this world, regardless of that God either 'wills or permits' these.) As for words of direction (the earliest example in the English language being Walter Hilton's "Ladder of Perfection"), it is essential to remember that the writer was responding to particular questions, situations, and the like on the part of individuals known to him. A sentence which was superbly suited to the original recipient of the letter can seem utterly callous out of context.

I'm going to spare my readers a massive treatment of 'chapter and verse' this once, but, in both cases, and the more because the greatest theologians often were great saints, there is yet another point of confusion. In a nutshell, the great saints often believed (and the other writers pretended) that (1) the only thing one feared was lack of union with God (especially for eternity), (2) that only grave sin was a spiritual problem, (3) that everyone who was troubled was concerned about a sin, and (4) that such statements as that about there being nothing to fear (since God always gives us the grace not to die in final impenitence) would make sense to those not utterly focussed on eternal union with the divine. (Even those who feared demonic possession could be assured the demon could not touch their will.)

Certainly, much suffering in this world is the consequence of sin (whether one's own or that of others), but equally much is not - and those who are troubled in ways other than those of conscience did not need the burden of fearing they'd sinned - or that there was some sin involved in not embracing "God's will."

On another note, I am a book reviewer, and receive books on various topics (my basket currently holds one on Bob Dylan, another a 1950s romance which sounds like a James Cagney film, another about the Third Reich), one of the latest (link below) being about someone who spent 20 years with the Missionaries of Charity. I was sorry to see that this congregation, at least according to the author's account, placed huge emphasis on suffering (including the self-inflicted), and atonement for sins. (Presumably, given seven days, one could create the cosmos as well... but I digress.) I'm aware that Mother Teresa had a long life, and that some of the practises (generally considered outmoded and negative now) described (such as using the discipline, wearing chains, forbidding physical contact of any kind) would have been common in many religious communities even 50 years ago. I know well that many saintly sorts are best not to imitate, and that her excessive emphasis on poverty and suffering could be equalled by Francis of Assisi. That did not keep me from a sense of sorrow that one who so encouraged love, and who became an icon for service of the poor, led others to such negativity.

I do recall, nonetheless, that Francis' own extreme ways of penance (which, towards the end of a lifespan about half that of Mother Teresa's, he himself admitted were excessive) were not imposed on his friars. I found it tragic that, in the 20th century, there would be such morbid practises as inflicting corporal punishment on one's self (unhealthy in itself, and hardly lending towards the strength one must need for the work of the MC), much less wearing a chemise to bathe and being cautioned against properly cleaning one's genital area. There remained an excessive emphasis on 'example' rather than self-knowledge, and on being models of fidelity to a point where one might take stands on issues without having the background to properly present or defend the positions. I can admire picking up the destitute from the streets - but not Mother Teresa's having deformed feet, not from a congenital defect, illness or injury, but because of remaining silent and suffering when, as a Loreto Sister, she received shoes which were much too small.

I am not one to applaud imprudence in the name of an example of fidelity. One example noted in this book involved a priest-teacher at Regina Mundi in Rome. Moral theologians indeed deal with highly controversial matters, and details can be confusing in an elementary class, yet (to use the example which became a source of trouble) this priest spoke of such current topics as how twin embryos can develop from a fertilized ovum - or how one of the twins can disappear - and that this can present debate on whether a human soul is present from conception. I am no authority on moral theology, but I can understand how one seeking to defend the position that we are human from the instant of conception may need to address objections and questions such as these in a presentation. Rather than consulting him or the administration, apparently the MC managed to get the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith involved.

I'm refraining from a lengthy treatment only because I have written a good deal about this in the past, but the idea of punishment, of having to 'atone' (by which I do not mean amendment!), and of asceticism as appeasing God rather than as removing distractions is the curse of the western Church. It leads me to ponder how 'darkness' in the spiritual life can come in varied forms. Most of us cannot understand, for example, the Dark Night of John of the Cross, but my sense is of one utterly caught up in a desire for union with God, who concurrently knew God is unknowable. There is darkness that is no charism - perhaps as a result of illness, exhaustion, sometimes clinical depression. I could see that it could be deadly (or crippling at least) if one gives all 'darkness' status as a special grace, and couples this with a sense of suffering to atone for sin.

Darkness in the sense of doubt, as I've seen in the writings of saints, can wear so many hats that only those with discernment can assist in sorting these! It can mean coming to maturity and discarding notions of the divine, for example. Mother Teresa would write, in 1959, "I have no faith -I dare not utter the words and thoughts that crowd in my heart - & make me suffer untold agony. So many unanswered questions live within me - I am afraid to uncover them - because of the blasphemy." (Punctuation as in the original - apparently she shared my idiosyncrasy of using lots of dashes.)

Mary Johnson, author of the book I was reviewing, raises a question which also came to my mind: "I suspected.. that Mother's refusal to uncover those questions may have caused her darkness to linger." It strikes me that seeing her doubts as blasphemy, and this coupled with a tendency towards and training in penitential acts to atone for sin, may have made her increase this darkness.

God of God, Light of Light... Light of the World... It would take one with far better judgement than I possess to tell anyone what flavour of darkness they face, but I believe the 'default' position is that the dark is a difficulty to face, not a gift of God. I dare-say that seeing darkness as a blessing would close any avenue for letting it decrease. Jesus of Nazareth took on our humanity fully (and in this we are glorified.) He was faithful to his radical, prophetic vocation, and accepted the natural consequences (not punishment from an angry God!) when human failings led to his being a convicted criminal - but it wasn't his hand that caused the flagellation. It can strengthen us to recall his calling out in agony on the cross, indeed, but let us place more stress on the Incarnation in its fullness - resurrection, ascension, looking ahead to glory, and our deification in the process.

Monday, 10 January 2011

A bit on the Baptism of the Lord

Happy New Decade, my friends. Winter is a horrid time for me - the cold and darkness already seem as if they have been persistent for the past eight months, and I shudder to think we have months of this ahead. As well, when one has maintained a blog for five years, one wonders if one has said anything of note. Some of my entries may contain humour, insight, and the like, but right now my thoughts seem as chilly as the weather. This entry is purely a gesture of 'yes, I'm still very much alive.' :)

I very much liked a way in which a priest-friend of mine developed a sermon regarding how Jesus was baptised into our humanity that we could be baptised into his death and resurrection. Oh, my theological training was quite good - perhaps too good.. with my brain in winter fog, I naturally thought of fifteen or so relevant references, and didn't have the stamina to tie them together. Yet there were images that entered my mind in reference to Jesus' baptism - particularly the recognition that, rudimentary though this concept was for the earliest Christians, the entire scene is a revelation of the Trinity. As well, Jesus, always the divine Person, in his human nature was given the gift of the Spirit for his ministry - the prophet, the healer, the crucified 'blasphemer,' the high priest.

Naturally, I feel inadequate without going into a thousand images, and treatment of whether theophany is historical, and so forth. Must save that for the spring thaw, I suppose. Yet, aside from my spirituality being centred on the Trinity (... well, why not? God as unknowable and beyond us keeps us from making Him into an idol, perhaps a super-charged version of ourselves such as Odin or Zeus), it always moves me that God is Creator and source of Revelation. By contrast with the gods of Canaan, and however much Israel had dealt with myths of many pagan cultures (these far stronger than their own in any natural sense - some must have wondered if territorial gods had the upper hand) long before Jesus' time on earth, Yahweh is constant creator - the material world is not an accident or regrettable development. Creation itself came into being from "and God said..." - he speaks, reveals, and calls us to 'hear' the Beloved Son.

I'm sorry that all too much of past treatments of our own baptism were centred on 'washing away the stain of original sin.' As my regulars know, I favour Irenaeus on that topic - for all that I love much in Augustine, he certainly was a bit excessive on this. Yet Augustine was defending divine omnipotence, in a culture where (as he'd experienced in his Manichean days), there was a dualism, where the material was seen as evil, creation as the work of a false god. Ironically, later developments of what was based on Augustine made it appear that our default location was hell. This was coupled with an uneasiness about Jesus' humanity, stopping just short of its denial. I well remember such old gems as the idea that Jesus was omniscient during his earthly existence and, for example, during his temptations, wasn't genuinely troubled but merely hiding his divine knowledge because, otherwise, Satan might not have seen to it he was crucified and the ransom for sin paid (with the gates of heaven opened in the process.)

Forgiveness is not a gift I'm about to belittle! But I do not see it as the action of a Creator who, however with regret, would have had to send us to hell (or limbo.) Reconciliation is a restoration to intimacy - and, if there are obstacles to this, that is not the Creator's doing.

However faulty or limited exegesis was until very recent history, I believe that it always was agreed that, in theophanies such as Jesus' Baptism and Transfiguration, He was revealed as priest, prophet, and king. (Thankfully, this is a far cry from a magician tricking the devil...) Given that, just a few days ago, we celebrated Epiphany, I was moved to think of Margaret Barker's treatment of the gifts of the magi. It has a valuable connection with Jesus as the 'new Adam,' but with an emphasis on priesthood - on sacrifices of glory rather than appeasement. I am thinking that our own call to spread the gospel, but also to take part in the Eucharist (sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving), is rooted in our baptism and common priesthood, and much prefer this to baptism's not being seen as an alternative to remaining in some vestibule because the pearly gates couldn't otherwise be unlocked.

Margaret Barker makes reference to several ancient sources which refers to Adam as priest, and to angels worshipping God's icon (as I've developed in the past, mankind as making the transcendent God immanent.) She mentions a Jewish text, the Apocalypse of Moses, where Adam, on leaving Eden, begged the angels for perfumes of Paradise (gold, frankincense, and myrrh), that he may continue the sacred offerings. "Adam driven from Eden represented the original priesthood driven from the temple in the time of Josiah.. Jesus was the new Adam, the new creation, opening the way back to Eden and restoring the true temple. The magi..were a sign for the Hebrew Christians that the ancient ways were being restored."

It occurs to me, as well, that revelation came more through our worship than we often realise. The Trinity were praised in early texts, long before actual formulation of a doctrine. This privilege of baptism (worship), all that has held our flawed Church (us!) together for two millennia, also reminds us of that eternal Creator - who continues to speak.